In 1914 on the eve of World War I, a British explorer named Ernest Shackleton embarked on an expedition to cross Antarctica on foot.  He believed Antarctica the last frontier for exploration, and gathered 28 crewmembers to accompany him on his ship the Endurance.  “I think he considered it the last great Antarctic adventure,” noted his granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, “to cross the Antarctica from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, a distance of about 1800 miles.”  Everyone knew the expedition would be dangerous, perhaps deadly, but no one expected the horrendous journey that followed. Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance recounts the nearly two years of perils experienced by the captain and crew that became heroic, despite that fact that they never came close to reaching their original goal.

Shackleton’s Voyage provides startling visual images, both new and archival, that pull the viewer into the cold, barren, and at times, beautiful world of the Antarctic.  Of particular interest is film footage taken by Frank Hurley, an Australian cameraman hired for the expedition.  His footage is woven into fresh footage acquired by NOVA for this project.  Stark black and white images serve the functions of providing the viewer with an actual document to these traumatic events.  One watches, from the point of view of a ship hand, as the threatening ice breaks open against the bow of the ship. Later, when the slush begins to freeze around the hull, there is footage of the men laboring to free it.  When the viewer watches a crewmember stack food supplies or play rugby, he or she is more likely to understand that these are flesh-and-blood people as opposed to a historical abstraction.   [To learn more about Hurley’s role as the expedition’s cameraman go to]

Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance never questions the premise of the entire journey.   One might reasonably ask why a group of English explorers—or anyone—would be deemed heroic for crossing a frozen landscape with sub-zero temperatures.  Perhaps the British, Americans, and Germans equated success of the explorer, along with scientific and geographical prizes, with national pride.  There is also the question of personal motives.  What kind of person would leave his family behind for a year and a half, risk the lives of 28 others, and continue the journey despite impossible conditions?   While national pride and personal vanity have resulted in new discoveries of great benefit to the human race, they have also been responsible for imperialism and recklessness.  

While Shackleton and crew received a hero’s welcome in Argentina, no one rolled out the red carpets in England.   In fact, England was too busy with the blood bath of WW I to concern itself with a few lost explorers.  Many thought the survivors should consider themselves lucky: they’d been stranded in Antarctica while most of their peers were fighting and dying in European trenches.  Eventually Shackleton and most of his crewmembers received Polar Medals and in 1922, eight crewmembers joined their captain for a second Antarctica expedition.  After arriving at the same whaling port where they had launched their earlier voyage, the captain began to feel unwell.  A number of bad habits that go unmentioned in the film (drinking, smoking, and overeating) had taken their toll. Onboard the Quest with a doctor by his side, Shackleton died of a heart attack.   He was buried on South Georgia Island.

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr,

For more information go to


Purchase at

Other Documentary Reviews

Documentary Films .Net